We Speak French Here
French was the only language worth speaking in medieval Britain – and not just by the upper classes.
Medieval Britain was a multilingual place. Alongside English were Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Scots, Norse, the now extinct Germanic language Norn, Latin and, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, Anglo-Norman French. Anglo-Norman French was the variety of French spoken in the British Isles from the Conquest to the end of the 14th century. It differs grammatically from the French spoken in France itself at the time,and has often been classed as a deviation from the ‘proper’ medieval French of the Continent. Scholars thus used to label it an imperfectly learned jargon. More recently, however, the idea, developed by historical linguists such as Richard Ingham, that this form of French was a viable, legitimate variety of the language, shaped and influenced by its direct contact with English, has come to be accepted.The traditional narrative is that, after the Conquest, Anglo-Norman French was used by people at the very top of medieval society: in the royal court and government, the law and among the nobility, including the bishops. It is usually held that it never took hold outside these spheres and that its use decreased from the late 1200s. Yet, despite the fact that it was supposedly losing out to English by the late 13th century, the number of practical, administrative and other documents, such as letters and medical texts, written in Anglo-Norman French actually increased.These documents allow us to discern a flourishing bilingual culture in the professional circles of later medieval Britain, one that continued until at least 1400. Anglo-Norman French was not, therefore, restricted to the elite levels of society. Nor were its speakers just those with a Norman pedigree and a landed inheritance. It was used across a range of contexts where accurate and efficient communication was essential. To get ahead in British professional life post-1066, it was important to speak French.French in the professions It is thought that young boys probably acquired French at ‘song’ school, where they were taught singing and reading, before moving on to study Latin at ‘grammar’ school. Probably the most well-known practical application of the resultant bilingualism in the professions is in the legal domain. Anglo-Norman French was used in the legal Year Books, compilations of law reports or ‘pleas’. It was also used for the readings (lectures) and moots (academic debates) in the Inns of Court in London, held for the education of young male lawyers. The Paston letters, a large collection of letters written by members of the upwardly mobile Paston family in Norfolk, include letters by the judge William Paston, written in both French and English. Knowledge of French was not just restricted to lawyers, however. Thomas Dru, commissioner of the peace in Wiltshire, wrote to the Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1378, in French, requesting that he hold a murder suspect in prison:Par quei, Sire, voillets garder le dit William tanque vous eyet bref et commaundement de le court de lui mander es Bank le Roy ou altrement devaunt les justices de la deliverauncez el counte de Wilts. Sire si ren voilletz de moy qe faire puisse ceo serrez prest.[‘Therefore, Sir, kindly keep the said W. until you have a letter and instructions from the Court to send him to the King’s Bench, or otherwise before the prison release justices in the county of Wiltshire. Sir if you desire anything of me that I can do, it will be accomplished.’]Although commissioners of the peace typically came from the gentry and were not required to have legal training, it is clear that their duties included dealing with legal matters and, as a result, they needed to make use of French. This also seems to have applied to their personal affairs, because the wills of those belonging to the gentry were quite often written up in Anglo-French by the 14th century.Central government officials and municipal administrators often had legal training and could converse in French. There are numerous accounts, memorandum books, corporate registers and ordinances that attest to this. For example, in 1354, Daniel Rough, the town clerk of Romney in Kent, wrote official French language letters to the representative of the nearby town of Hythe concerning a dispute over fishing nets (‘spindlers’):Com le dit W. fust peschant en la myer ove ces spindlers … cy vynt la tempeste de la mier sur lui, par kai en salvacioun de lui et de sa companye, lessa ces spindlers et se trea al haven de Romene.[‘As the said W. was fishing in the sea with these spindler nets … there came upon him a sea-storm, so seeking his and his company’s safety he left these nets and withdrew to Romney harbour.’]What, though, of other professions? We know that a large quantity of medical recipes (which sometimes include some questionable advice) were written in Anglo-Norman French, as can be seen below:Esclarciemenz as oylz: Pernez freses meures e les gardez tant que ele seient purries …[‘Clearing the eyes: Take fresh plums and keep them until they are rotten …’]In fact, there were no medical recipes written in post-Conquest English until the 15th century. It is unlikely that doctors spoke French to their patients, but medical knowledge seems to have been compiled in it, which suggests that English doctors had at least some knowledge of the language. The same can be said of architects, who specified building contracts in French. In these contracts, the appearance, proportions, materials and other aspects of the building to be constructed are in French, meaning knowledge of it was essential.Estate management, probably the biggest professional sector in medieval England due to its predominantly agricultural economy, involved a number of different occupations, including landholders, stewards, bailiffs and reeves. Vast amounts of manorial records, especially accounts, survive. These are mainly written in Latin (with sections in English and French increasingly appearing as the medieval period goes on). Letters dealing with practical things, such as arrangements for the sowing season and the provision of locks for barns, however, were often written in Anglo-Norman French. Clear evidence of this is found in the letters of the Abbot of Westminster, William of Wenlock, who, around 1300, wrote many letters of instruction in this variety of French to the bailiffs and reeves of the various manors held by the abbey. Similar letters survive from Canterbury Priory and the bishoprics of Exeter and Bath and Wells, among others.These letters paint a picture of an organised structure of managerial responsibilities and suggest that, to perform these responsibilities, a good working knowledge of French was required. This evidence has implications for how we view the literacy of bailiffs and, in particular, reeves in medieval society. A reeve was a manager of individual manors, responsible for overseeing the peasants. The office was typically held by a man of lower rank. It is therefore sometimes supposed that reeves would not have been literate and would have needed to keep a record via tallies. Although some reeves may not have been able to read or write, the fact that William of Wenlock wrote, in French, to a dozen reeves in the various manors held by his abbey as sole addressees indicates that they were not only literate, they were bilingual as well.Medieval merchantsTrade and commerce were domains where French was used for both domestic and international communication. Merchant guild regulations were often drawn up in Anglo-Norman French. These key regulatory documents would have been required reading for a range of merchants and traders and, in order to understand them, they would have needed at least a working knowledge of the language.Some surviving correspondence in ecclesiastical registers suggests that when business transactions needed to be effected in writing, for example in the linen trade, French was preferred to Latin or English. It is also thought that English merchants used French for business dealings with overseas merchants by the mid-13th century, not only to negotiate business deals, but also to arrange travel, lodgings and food. European trading communities were deeply interconnected during the period, predominantly via shipping, and French was used as the lingua franca of medieval maritime law, not just in the British Isles, but throughout the Atlantic and Northern seas. The maritime historian Maryanne Kowaleski argues that French would have been understood by a lot of European merchants and seamen, illustrated by the fact that the 1317 legal proceedings launched against the Flemish pirate John Crabbe in Yarmouth, which involved an inquest jury of Flemish merchants, were conducted in French. She does note, however, that for the most part we simply do not know which language was used by seamen from different countries within the British Isles (she mentions two Italian merchants arrested in York, who had wandered the city for three days because nobody could understand them).Further evidence of the importance of French in trade comes from the many trade-related words borrowed from French that found their way into Middle English (the form of English spoken and written between 1100 and 1500). These words include truken for ‘barter’, purchasen, ‘to buy’, surchargen, ‘to make excessive charges’, marchaundise, which could be the practice of trading itself, achatour and wastour for buyers, marchaunt, ‘a shopkeeper or a merchant’, pessoner, ‘a seller of fish’ and fruiter, ‘a seller of fruit and vegetables’. There are also French-origin Middle English words for different kinds of coins, such as scute, real and noble, the word merchaundise for goods and various words for specific kinds of goods, such as haberdashrie. Words related to pecuniary value include value itself, valour, meaning ‘price’, allouen, meaning ‘to estimate or value something’ and enhauncen, meaning ‘to raise in price’.The merchants and traders of medieval England must have understood these borrowed words, otherwise they would not have been used in Middle English texts concerned with trade. Thus, although the accounts or other private documents of traders do not usually survive in large numbers or in readily available form, these words add to the evidence that the French of England was a practical, oral language, used by professional merchants as well as those working in other professional domains. Furthermore, while these words may have started out as part of the occupational argot of trade, a number of them remained within everyday English and became part of common usage, recognisable today, including, for example, haberdashrie, merchaundise and marchaunt.Why did people use French, anyway?Since these professionals would normally have been native English speakers, the question is: why did they communicate in French? First, Middle English was full of linguistic variation, so much so that it was often near impossible for people from the north of England to understand what those from the south were saying, and vice versa. Given this extreme diversity, it may often have just been easier to speak Anglo-Norman French, as long as all parties could basically understand it, in order to ensure comprehension and agreement on business particulars.Second, as the economic historian Richard Britnell pointed out, it may be that the use of French in the professions was simply an established cultural habit. Latin was conventionally used as the language of written record and was also spoken in some religious and academic contexts, but was rarely used as a vernacular language on the street, i.e. as a language spoken or written by the ordinary people of the country. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Anglo-Norman French was actually spoken by the people using it and was therefore more of a vernacular, living language than Latin. That explains why French might have been used over Latin, but why was it chosen over English? Even though English would seem to be the vernacular language of choice for texts such as practical letters or administrative documents, there was a long-established tradition of French for official, administrative and business-related documents by the 14th century. Therefore, despite the fact that were no native French speakers in Britain by then, Anglo-Norman French was associated with officialdom and appears to have been a preferred written (and potentially spoken) medium in certain professional communities. Indeed, it may well have been used as a kind of neutral professional language, much as English is used around the world today, in sectors such as finance, business and IT. It may also have served to confirm the higher occupational standing of those employing it.Language, ideology and identityTwo wider points can be drawn from this exploration of the dynamic language situation in medieval Britain. The first concerns the development of the English language itself. Traditional accounts of English have tended to build a monolingual history that emphasises uniformity and purity. However, the fact that many English speakers during the Middle Ages were bilingual, and sometimes multilingual, suggests that these accounts are rather anachronistic. The English we know today emerged within a multilingual Britain and any account of its development needs to be open to that reality.The second concerns the connection between language and identity. It has been claimed that language is the primary indicator of national identity. If you speak Hungarian, you are Hungarian, and so on. In later medieval Britain, however, the association between language and national identity was much looser and more fluid than that. Anglo-Norman French was used in the British Isles, was distinct from Continental French and was arguably shaped by its contact with English. It can therefore be considered one of the languages of medieval Britain, one that allowed its bilingual speakers the chance to achieve practical things. French did not just belong to the French. It belonged to whoever wanted to speak it, write it and use it to their advantage.Imogen Marcus is Senior Lecturer in English Language at Edge Hill University.